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God Is Just Not Fair
finding hope when life doesn't make sense
By Jennifer Rothschild
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2013 Jennifer Rothschild
All rights reserved.
Life is never fair, and perhaps it is a good thing for most of us that it is not.
Oscar Wilde, An Ideal Husband
As a little girl in church, I used to sing the beautiful hymn, "Fairest Lord Jesus." I loved the melody, and even though I didn't really grasp the words, I liked them too.
Fairest Lord Jesus, ruler of all nature,
O Thou of God and man the Son,
Thee will I cherish, Thee will I honor,
Thou, my soul's glory, joy, and crown.
I had no idea what "my soul's glory, joy, and crown" were, and I didn't much care. All I cared about was that Jesus was the "fairest"! And since Jesus and I were tight, I expected things should work out pretty well for me. Fairness was really important to me, as it is to most children. I didn't want my brothers to get more candy than I did or to stay up later than I got to. I just wanted everything to always be fair. So it was reassuring to think of Jesus as he was described in that hymn—the "fairest."
I clearly didn't understand that the hymn writer was using another definition of fair—beautiful, lovely, and pleasing. Bummer! But shouldn't Jesus still be described as the fairest anyway? After all, he is God, and God is fair, right? Yet, bad things happen to people all the time. And bad things happen to Christians too—people who are tight with God. So is God fair?
In the summer of 2010, Joni Eareckson Tada, a woman I have long admired, was diagnosed with breast cancer. More than thirty years ago, her book about the diving accident that left her a quadriplegic was one of the last books I read before I was diagnosed with the degenerative eye disease that took the majority of my vision. Her story inspired me, and reading about how she struggled, questioned, and triumphed over her limitations was exactly what I needed tucked into my heart for my coming journey into darkness. I have loved her ever since, so I was saddened when I heard about her cancer. I thought, "She doesn't deserve that pain. She's been in a wheelchair since she was seventeen. Isn't that suffering enough? She has served God so faithfully, even with her disability. It just doesn't seem fair that God would let her get cancer. Isn't one hard thing in this life enough?"
We tend to feel like a little suffering is expected, but once we've met the Christian quota for suffering, it just isn't fair to have more piled on. Besides, don't we as Christians deserve protection, blessings, and healing from "fairest Lord Jesus"? And not just us—there are plenty of people who may not be Christians, but they don't deserve a bum rap either. You know, like how a dad loses his job at the same time his elderly mom has to be put in a nursing home, while his young son struggles with a new diagnosis of diabetes and his wife is so overwhelmed that she falls into a deep depression. And of course, with no job, there is no insurance. How is that fair? How can "good" people deserve such bad things in life? Especially when we believe God is good?
Many of us embrace the belief that we deserve good things from God because he is good and that seems only fair. But is it really true? Yes, God is good, but does this mean we deserve only good things in our lives?
What Do We Deserve from God?
I've never grappled with this issue of what we deserve from God as much as I did when I sat in the front of the auditorium in a civic center on a cold January night. I was the guest speaker at a women's conference. I had just completed the first of three talks, and it had already been a hard weekend. The travel had been challenging; the weather was raw and wintry; and now a striking theological difference between me and the conference organizers had sparked an undercurrent of tension in the room.
The tension had to do with our differing views of healing. One group of Christians reads the Bible and is convinced it is God's will that everyone be healed. Other Christians read the same Bible and conclude it is not God's will that everyone be healed. If you're unfamiliar with the Bible, this may be confusing. Here's a very simplified synopsis of the two basic ways Christians understand sickness and healing.
View 1: Some believe all sickness should be healed. When healing does not occur, they believe it can be attributed to either a lack of repentance for sin or a lack of faith. If you have enough faith, God will heal you. Because of your faith and God's goodness, you deserve healing.
View 2: Others believe God allows sickness and suffering, and both can be redeemed by God for a purpose. But it is not God's will that all should be healed on planet Earth. Sickness isn't necessarily a result of individual sin or a lack of faith, but rather a result of our broken human condition. Suffering and healing are not based on merit. In general terms, we aren't sick because we deserve it, and we aren't healed because we deserve it.
I happen to fall into the View 2 camp. But the majority of the women in the auditorium on that January weekend fell into the View 1 camp. It was clear that someone on the "choose the speaker" committee had failed to inform the leadership that I might have a slightly different perspective on what the Bible says about healing. Oops! I guess I just assumed that any group that invited a blind speaker to their event would know they were getting the walking poster child for the "God doesn't always heal" perspective.
My feeling that the woman in charge didn't agree with my understanding of Scripture was confirmed as the weekend went on. Following my first talk, in which I shared my story of living with blindness and living with faith, the woman responsible for putting on the conference stood on the platform and graciously offered a subtle theological rebuttal. I felt a tad uncomfortable, but I tried to keep smiling and chalk it up to sisterly differences. It's OK, I thought. She's entitled to share her opinion. It's no big deal.
My second talk was based on the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3—the story in which three Hebrew men are thrown into the fiery furnace by angry King Nebuchadnezzar and then rescued by God. My key point was that sometimes God chooses to deliver us through fire rather than from fire. When I finished my talk, any thoughts I had that our differences were no big deal had vanished. I could tell by the atmosphere in the room that it was, in fact, a very big deal. I suddenly felt like my name would soon appear on the church's "most wanted" list. This time when the woman in charge took the stage after I finished speaking, she was slightly less gracious in the way she refuted my teaching. I was clearly in trouble.
The conference leader and I couldn't have been more opposite in our understanding, and here I was saying things like, "Sometimes God does not heal," and, "Sometimes God brings you through the fire." I didn't want to cause confusion for the audience and, truthfully, I didn't want to cause trouble for myself with the woman in charge—because, believe me, she was large and in charge! I just wanted to be faithful to the truth as I understood it and then leave. I am quite sure they wanted the same. At least I'm sure about the leave part.
There was a thirty-minute break before the third session, and I used every minute of it to pray about my final message. It was about the apostle Paul's thorn in the flesh—you know, the thorn God didn't remove (2 Corinthians 12:7–9). Oh no, I thought. The woman in charge isn't going to like this message at all! Should I soften it, Lord? As I prayed, I felt like God was giving me a green light to give the talk as it was, so I walked to the podium for the last session and asked the women to turn to 2 Corinthians 12 in their Bibles. I have never felt so small, so aware of my own frailty, so willing to be wrong—and so willing to be out of there! As I began, I was still silently asking God to give me wisdom or to pluck that thorn right out of Scripture. But no matter how hard I tried to see it otherwise, the thorn remained. So I proceeded to teach about living a life of faith when God allows thorns.
By the end of the message, I felt enormously relieved. It was over—or so I thought. Turns out it was just beginning. The formerly gracious woman in charge stood and said in an unmistakably condescending tone, "I would like to thank our little speaker." Our little speaker? I suddenly felt like a Shrinky Dink who wanted nothing more than to become the invisible woman. But there I sat, red with embarrassment and hurt, and just a little incredulous.
Did she really just call me "our little speaker"? I'm toast! The heat was on. I braced myself for another rebuttal, but instead of refuting my message, she pulled out the big guns. "Everyone in this room deserves to be healed," she stated. "If you have enough faith, God will heal you."
My heart began to race. Actually, my heart began to break. What about Paul? I thought. He had faith, but he wasn't healed. What about the Hebrew men thrown into the furnace? God allowed that. How could she disregard all the examples in the Bible?
Then came the moment of truth—her truth anyway. After revving up everyone's emotions, the leader announced, "If you believe you deserve to be healed, stand. Come on, stand! You deserve to be healed. Stand up and show God you have the faith to be healed. You deserve it!" Women were clapping as other women in the room rose to their feet.
I felt a clammy sweat in the palms of my hands, and my heart was still pounding. I was in the front row! Everyone could see "our little speaker." Even if they couldn't easily see me, they would be looking for me, because the leader's invitation was in direct opposition to the message I had just invited them to consider. Women all over the auditorium were standing, weeping, and cheering. The woman in charge kept inviting them to stand, repeatedly declaring that they "deserved to be healed."
The atmosphere in the room was intense, and I was a knot of tension. I stared straight ahead and tried to whisper like a ventriloquist to my friend Karen, who was seated next to me, "Is everyone standing?" Karen whispered through her own pursed lips, "Everyone but us." She paused for a second and then whispered, "I'll do whatever you do."
How I hated to go against the group. How I hated to be obvious, looking as if "our little speaker" was trying to make a big theological statement. And how I hated to upset the woman in charge with the very big personality and the very loud microphone. I wanted Karen to say, "Aw, c'mon, let's just stand. It won't really matter. It'd be better to compromise by standing than to upset everyone by sitting." But she didn't say that, and I'm glad she didn't.
Let's just say "our little speaker" was shaking in her size six boots. I sighed and whispered back to Karen, "I can't stand." Her response was my consolation: "Neither can I." And so there we sat. Heathens or heretics—I'm not sure what the onlookers thought about us. I just know that, according to Karen, we were the only two sitting.
The reason I remained seated had nothing to do with faith. Had the invitation been "if you believe God can heal," or something similar, I would have been on my feet. Actually, I may have been standing on my chair and shouting so loudly I would have gotten on everyone's nerves. Because of God's grace, I have been granted faith. The faith I have is sufficient faith for healing—and it's sufficient faith for suffering.
My friend, the reason I didn't stand was because of the way the leader consistently made her appeal: "You deserve to be healed." I did not stand because I don't believe I deserve to be healed. Is that radical? Does it sound like low spiritual self-esteem or a martyr complex to you? As you consider this, let me reassure you that there have been many times when I have gratefully received prayers for healing. Mighty men and women of faith have laid hands on me and prayed as tears streamed down my face. I have exercised the faith to be healed, but my requests for divine healing are not motivated by the belief that I deserve it.
Think about it. If you had been at that conference, would you have stood? Do you feel you deserve to be healed—or delivered or blessed? If you do, please don't think I am condemning you or your views. After all, it may simply indicate that those who hold this view see God as loving, powerful, and good—and he is. I know the weeping women in the auditorium that wintery night weren't calculating their own merit when they stood for healing. It's likely most didn't even register the implications of the way the leader phrased her appeal. They stood because they longed to be rescued from their heartbreak. They were showing God they loved and trusted and needed him. I respect them for their faith and devotion. But standing because you believe God can heal you and standing because you believe you deserve for God to heal you are two very different things.
So here's a question: What do you and I really deserve from God? As you ponder that question, let me introduce you to two guys from the Old Testament whose story gives us a clue about what we deserve.
Deserve or Desserts?
Moses had an older brother named Aaron. The Lord had appointed Aaron, his four sons, and his descendants to serve as Israel's priests (Exodus 28). The primary function of priests was to oversee the offering of sacrifices to God. Because of his holiness, God had instituted strict protocols for everything to do with worship and how the priests should approach him (Leviticus 1–9). One day, Aaron's two oldest sons evidently decided to approach God on their terms: "Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, contrary to his command" (Leviticus 10:1).
Exactly what Aaron's sons did isn't totally clear, but this we do know—it wasn't what God required. When they offered "unauthorized fire before the LORD," Aaron's sons dishonored God by ignoring the very specific rules he had established for worship in the tabernacle. At best, their actions were careless; at worst, they showed flagrant disregard for God.
Sometimes we think of God as a doting grandpa in the sky who chuckles good-naturedly at our sinful actions because he considers them merely silly or cute. Other times we think of God as an unconcerned deity who pays attention only to the big moral violations in the world like theft and murder. And then there are times we think of God as someone who shouldn't be too picky about what we do because, after all, we mean well most of the time and we're only human. Maybe those are some of the thoughts Aaron's sons had as they brought their strange fire to God. Perhaps they didn't take him seriously, so they thought he probably wouldn't take them too seriously either. But they were dead wrong, literally: "Fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD" (Leviticus 10:2).
What? They improvised a little on the rules and God struck them dead? That's not what they deserved, is it? They didn't mean to tick off God. How could such a seemingly minor infraction warrant the death penalty? As much as it pains me to say it, Nadab and Abihu got their just desserts. They got what they deserved. They violated the law of the holiness of God, and God responded justly. They deserved to be treated according to their sin.
We, too, deserve to be treated according to our sin. Yet we don't get what we deserve. God treats us "unfairly" when it comes to our sin. We all play with unauthorized fire. We live our lives with all manner of actions and attitudes that affront God's character. Simply put, we come before God with sin.
In and of themselves, our sins may not seem like a big deal—they're just part of being human. But what they reveal is that we have a sinful nature; we have the inclination and disposition to sin. Consequently, our sinful actions and attitudes are just like that unauthorized fire Aaron's sons carted into God's presence. Neither the strange fire—nor its owner—can stand before God because both are sinful.
Excerpted from God Is Just Not Fair by Jennifer Rothschild. Copyright © 2013 Jennifer Rothschild. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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